8 Mistakes to Avoid in Grad School

Avoid common mistakes
Ooops! Avoid these mistakes. Fuse / Getty

Do you often find yourself saying "I hate grad school" or simply frustrated with the increased workload that comes with it? Given the competitive nature of graduate school admissions, grad students tend to be excellent students, but hours of study over complex subject matter and good grades do not guarantee success in graduate school. In order to fully value and understand the education you're receiving you need to avoid these eight common pitfalls of graduate students that wind up making them hate the program.

Thinking Like an Undergraduate

Undergraduates take classes while graduate students immerse themselves in a discipline. Undergrads' work ends when class ends, they turn in papers and leave campus. A graduate students' work, on the other hand, is never completed. After class they do research, meet with faculty, in a lab, and interact with other students and faculty. Successful graduate students understand the difference between college and graduate school and treat their education like a job.

It would be easy to get bogged down in the ho-hum of yet another four years of "studying" if you forget this little detail: you are in graduate medical school because you love medicine and want to pursue a career in it. Treat graduate school, instead of another 1,000 hours of studying, as your first days of being in your chosen profession. Hopefully, that will bring the joy and passion back to your work and studies.

Focusing on Grades

Undergraduates worry about grades and as a result, often approach their professors to ask for a higher grade through either extra work or a redo on previous assignments. In grad school grades are not that important. Funding is usually linked with grades but poor grades are very uncommon.

C's generally are uncommon. In graduate school, the emphasis is not on the grade but on the learning.

This frees up students to actually be able to delve into their chosen fields of medicine instead of focusing on instant recall of data or studying for tests. As a doctor, a graduate of medical school will need to have long-term retention of the information garnered during the program. By focusing on the application of information and repeatedly doing so, students in grad school truly learn their craft and instead of getting bogged down on whether or not they're passing, begin to enjoy the concept of working professionally.

Failing to Plan Ahead

Effective graduate students are detail oriented and juggle many tasks. They must prepare for multiple classes, write papers, take exams, conduct research and perhaps even teach classes. It's no surprise that good graduate students are good at identifying what needs to be done and prioritizing. However, the best graduate students keep an eye on the future. Focusing on the here and now is important but good students think ahead, beyond the semester and even year. Failing to plan ahead can make your graduate school experience much harder and worse yet could even adversely affect your career.

As a graduate student, you should begin thinking about comprehensive exams well before it's time to study and tossing around dissertation ideas early in graduate school so you can seek feedback and develop your thesis well in advance. Considering career alternatives and determining what experiences you need to get the jobs you desire is imperative to your success as a doctor. For example, those who want jobs as professors will need to obtain research experience, learn how to write grants and publish their research in the best journals that they can. Graduate students who think only about the present may miss out on the experiences that they need and may be ill-prepared for the future they envisioned. Don't wind up hating graduate school because you didn't prepare ahead of time.

Being Unaware of Department Politics

Undergraduate students are often shielded from academic politics and are unaware of the power dynamics within a department or university.

Success in graduate school requires that students become aware of departmental politics, especially because professors and students alike oftentimes continue to work together professionally after graduation.

In every university department, there are some faculty members with more power than others. Power can take many forms: grant money, coveted classes, administrative positions and more. Moreover, interpersonal dynamics influence departmental decisions and student's lives. Faculty who dislike each other, for example, may refuse to sit on the same committee. Even worse, they may refuse to agree on suggestions for revising a students' dissertation. Successful graduate students are aware that part of their success relies on navigating nonacademic interpersonal issues.

Not Fostering Relationships with Faculty

Many graduate students mistakenly think that graduate school is only about classes, research and academic experiences. Unfortunately, this is incorrect as it is also about relationships. The connections students make with faculty and other students form the base for a lifetime of professional relationships. Most students recognize the importance of professors in shaping their careers. Graduate students will look to professors for recommendation letters, advice and job leads throughout their careers. Every job that a graduate degree holder might seek requires several letters of recommendation and/or references.

In order to have a better graduate school experience and in turn a more rewarding professional career, it is imperative that graduate students seek the advice and camaraderie of their professors. After all, these same professors are soon to be their contemporaries in the field. 

Ignoring Peers

It's not just faculty who matter. Successful graduate students also foster relationships with other students. Students help each other by providing advice, tips and acting as a sounding board for one another's dissertation ideas. Graduate student friends, of course, are also sources of support and camaraderie.

After graduation, student friends become sources of job leads and other valuable resources. The more time that passes after graduation the more valuable those friendships become. 

Not only that but making friends in school is one of the biggest benefits of joining a program. This is especially true of medical school where, at the very least, you all share one common interest: a love of medicine. It's easy to hate school when you have no friends to commiserate with over the trials and tribulations of becoming a doctor. Making friends will help ease the stress during your schooling and go on to be greatly beneficial when you start your residency program afterward.

Not Putting in Face Time

Completing class work and research is a big contributor to success in graduate school, but the intangible elements of your education also matter. Successful graduate students put in face time. They are around and visible in their department. The don't leave when classes and other obligations are over. They spend time in the department. They are seen.

This is imperative to garnering those all-important letters of recommendation as well as receiving notoriety by not only your professors but your peers. Oftentimes graduates who do not spend enough time making these appearances find themselves lacking in the feeling of accomplishments those who do spend enough time within the department do. This is because those students don't recieve as much recognition for their work and dedication. If you're having a bad time at graduate school and don't feel that your professors are respecting your effort, perhaps making more face time with your peers will remedy this common problem.

Forgetting to Have Fun

Graduate school is a lengthy endeavor, filled with stress and countless hours spent studying, researching and cultivating professional skills. Although as a student you will have a great many responsibilities it is important to take the time to have fun. You don't want to graduate and later realized that you have missed out on some of the coolest opportunities to enjoy yourself. The most successful graduate students are healthy and well-rounded because they make time for and cultivate a life.

If you find yourself midway through graduate school and hating every minute of it, maybe the perfect solution is to step away from it all for an evening (or a weekend) and remind yourself of your youth and excitement by going out with your colleagues, exploring some of the school's organized activities or simply taking in the city where you're studying. A few hours or days away from work could be just the refresher you need to remind yourself why you chose the medical field in the first place. That way, you can get back to learning and enjoying your field of study.